Shavuot: The 'Weekest' Link
Shavuot (Exodus 19:1 - 20:23 )
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Passover has its Seder. Purim has its Megillah Reading. Chanukah has its Menorah. Sukkot has its Sukkah.
Shavuot, however, seems to be quite a barren holiday in terms of mitzvot, rituals, and commandments. True, many have a custom to remain awake the entire night studying Torah on Shavuot, but this is a custom that developed and not an obligatory law. The Torah does not prescribe any particular directive to be performed on Shavuot. This unique aspect of Shavuot in contrast to the other Festivals is extremely surprising.
Shavuot is certainly a more significant, more inspirational Festival than any of the others. The others derive their validity, both legal and spiritual, from the Giving of the Torah which occurred on Shavuot. Why then must we struggle to find meaning and growth from Shavuot? Beyond the special sacrifices brought on the Festival, why shouldn't the Torah assist us, as it characteristically does, by requiring an observance
of some kind that would call to mind the Giving of the Torah? Why isn't there an obligation to recount the story of Sinai on Shavuot similar to the commandment on Passover to tell of the Exodus?
The name Shavuot means 'Festival of Weeks.' We refer to it as such in the 'Shemoneh Esrai' prayers of the holiday. It is derived from verses in various places in the Torah. In Shemot 34:22, it is called the holiday of 'Shavuot,' and in Devarim 16:9-10, the Torah states: "Seven weeks shall you count; from when the sickle is first used on the standing crops, you should begin counting seven weeks. Then you should observe the Holiday of Weeks."
We see clearly that the name 'Weeks' is a descriptive culmination of the 49 days/7 weeks count which began on Passover.
Strange. Wouldn't it have made more sense for the holiday to be called 'Festival of Torah'? Even if for whatever reason that name would be rejected, the name 'Weeks' seems quite dry and incidental. True, we just completed a count of seven weeks, but why is it important to call the Festival 'Weeks'? Are we celebrating the weeks counted or the Day of the Giving of the Torah?
In addition, the Torah never refers to Shavuot by a particular calendar date as it does with all other holidays. Passover is described as the 15th of Nissan; Sukkot the 15th of Tishrei, etc. Yet, Shavuot is 'Seven weeks or 49 days after Passover.' The Torah implies that if theoretically no one would count the seven weeks, Shavuot would not take place that year. Shavuot can only exist when and if the counting preparations have occurred. Why does Shavuot have this unique aspect?
It would appear, evidently, that we are indeed rejoicing in 'Weeks.' The purpose of the Counting period is to enable us to prepare for receiving the Torah. (See "Of Sefira Beards and Beacons Gone Bad" ) We cannot expect to accept the Torah without adequate preparation. In receiving the Torah we are entering into a marriage with God. Any good marriage consists of a man and woman who have grown spiritually and emotionally throughout their lives as individuals, thus preparing themselves through self-growth for bonding with another person. Without proper
preparation, a marriage begins on shaky ground.
Similarly, we must prepare ourselves for God's giving of the Torah. If we would not prepare for receiving the Torah, it would be impossible for the Torah's goals, directives and instructions to stick to us and make an impact. We must first become people worthy of hearing the Torah's sophisticated message. We must work on our character and only then can we utilize and apply the Torah. This idea is expressed in Pirkei Avot (3:21): "If there is no character(derech eretz), there is no Torah."
So God established a holiday in which we rejoice in the weeks spent in preparation for Shavuot. We revel in the beautiful and refined people that we have become as a result of the previous seven weeks, knowing that it is only due to this tremendous
self-improvement that we merit receiving a Torah, carrying out God's plans for the world through His Instructions for Living
Celebrating the counting and preparations also brings to life the concept of the application of Torah being primary and not just intellectual study, even if one
studies with sincere and holy intentions. The goal of study is to impact upon all of our actions and thoughts in fulfilling the entirety of Torah's 613 laws. On Shavuot we accept and re-commit ourselves to the wholeness of Torah.
This clarifies a common misconception regarding Shavuot and returns us to our
opening question as to why Shavuot has no specific mitzvah or observance prescribed.
Generally, it is understood that the focus of Shavuot is Talmud Torah, the commandment to study Torah. While this may be true if measured by a standard of time -- we do spend the entire Shavuot night studying Torah -- nevertheless it is inaccurate.
The focus of Shavuot should be a re-establishment of our connection to the entire Torah, with all of its laws, because it is on this day that we received the Torah.
Whenever we experience a festival, we are not simply commemorating an event but we are re-living it. Every festival is an opportunity for growth because the festival is infused with spiritual forces that were unleashed due to some historical event (see Rav
Eliyahu Dessler's Michtav Me'Eliyahu, Volume 2, page 21 for an elaboration on this concept).
On Shavuot the Jewish People received and accepted the Torah. Thus, every year we accept the Torah anew and we must find ways in our personal service of God to strengthen our commitment to Torah.
Perhaps, it is for this reason that the Torah does not prescribe a specific ritual observance for Shavuot. On other holidays, the Torah gives specific directions both in the letter and the spirit of the laws. At times, one can "get lost" in the performance of the ritual and fail to achieve significant general growth due to a lack of focus on the meaning of the festival. The Torah accounts for this, but for most holidays, allows the fulfillment of an observance to suffice.
On Shavuot, however, the Torah does not want us to become "distracted" by the performance of any specific commandment. The Giving of the Torah is far too powerful and all encompassing to enable any expression of specific ritual through physical action to be meaningful. The Torah includes all commandments. A mitzvah ritual obligation would actually detract, not enhance the general goal of a re-commitment to the entire Torah on Shavuot.
We learn all night and as much as possible on Shavuot to show how precious the Torah is to us and to express our great desire to know all of God's Torah. It is only through knowledge of the Torah that we can begin to allow it to impact upon us as people. Only through the knowledge of Torah will our character improve. And only through the knowledge of Torah can we hope to re-commit ourselves to it and its laws.
Learn hard on Shavuot but remember to re-accept the entire Torah, all 613 commandments, as well.